Friday, June 14, 2013

MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004)


MILLION DOLLAR BABY (DIR: CLINT EASTWOOD) (SCR: PAUL HAGGIS, BASED ON THE SHORT STORY COLLECTION ROPE BURNS:STORIES FROM THE CORNER BY FX TOOLE)

Clint Eastwood's MILLION DOLLAR BABY was his second win for best picture since 1992's THE UNFORGIVEN, and it's also the third sports picture to win ever (the first was ROCKY in 1976, and then CHARIOTS OF FIRE in 1982; interestingly, two of them are boxing films).  Like its scrappy heroine, the film's history had a nice underdog quality to it, going from a long term unmade project to a surprise hit and best picture winner (not without some controversy, which I'll talk about later).  But, while I find much to admire in the film, it's often heavy handed characterizations and story make it fall far from greatness in my book, and I think several better films were made that year.

The movie began as a short story collection written by former boxing trainer Jerry Boyd under the name FX Toole in 2000.  Movie star Angelica Huston loved the book and took it to producer Albert S. Ruddy, hoping to direct it herself, but by the time he got the rights she had moved on to other things.  The project bounced around for several years, and eventually Paul Haggis, who had mostly worked in TV at that point, wanted to write and direct it.  He thought that Clint Eastwood would be perfect for the role of the grizzled fight trainer Frankie Dunn, and Eastwood liked both the role and the script so much that he asked Haggis to allow him to direct it, which Haggis quickly agreed to.  Sandra Bullock and Ashley Judd were both considered before Hilary Swank was chosen for the role of Maggie Fitzgerald, while Eastwood's former costar Morgan Freeman was cast as Frankie's partner, Eddie Dupris.  Despite Eastwood's name and prestige, the film still had trouble getting financed, but eventually a deal was struck in which the Warner Brothers studio would put up $15,000,000 and the smaller Lakeshore Entertainment studio would throw in around the same amount.  Eastwood shot the film quickly, in his customary fashion, and buoyed by mostly positive reviews and word of mouth, it would go on to make around $100,000,000.

Clint Eastwood & Hillary Swank

It tells the story of Maggie Fitzgerald(Swank), a waitress from Missouri, who longs to become a boxer.  She begs long time boxing coach Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) to coach her.  He at first refuses, but eventually, after some prodding by his assistent Eddie Dupris (Freeman), he agrees.  Maggie goes from one victory to another, but tragedy strikes when she badly injured in a title bout and winds up paralyzed  in a hospital bed.  Grief stricken, she asks Frankie to help her commit suicide.

Eastwood and cinematographer  Tom Stern used stark, harsh lighting to give the film a gritty, realistic look that works well for the story.  Even the fight scenes avoid flashiness, using slow motion only once, during the final, fatal blow that poor Maggie takes.  The non glossy style keeps the movie from lapsing to overt sentiment, even towards the end when the story gets sadder and sadder.  I also like the way that Haggis's script uses Eddie's voice over narration, which never tells too much and is often poetic in nature ("sometimes the best way to deliver a punch is to step back... but step back too far and you ain't fighting at all.").  And while perhaps overlong, (a subplot about dim witted boxer Danger Barch [Jay Baruchel] befriending Eddie doesn't really add much to the film) the movie builds nicely to a moving climax.
Unfortunately, it falters in some of it's characters:  I dislike the way that the champ, Billie "The Blue Bear" (Lucia Rijker), is portrayed as such a horrible villain who openly cheats, and Eastwood indulges in one of the film's more excessive moments when Billie arrives for the title fight by rising up from the shadows like some kind of demon while scary music plays. That moment also telegraphs the tragic end of the fight too obviously, and I personally think that that  ending would have been more powerful if it just happened in the normal course of a fight instead of coming from a cheap shot; the first time I saw the film I just knew that the fight was going to end badly, because Billie's cheating had been so clearly established.  I would have preferred to have been surprised.  And even worse than the champ character  is the portrayal of Maggie's mother Earline by Margo Martindale, a ludicrously broad stereotype of a poor, lazy, white trash, welfare cheat, who has literally gotten fat off the government. (Clearly, Eastwood's conservative politics played a role here).  How unlikeable a woman is she?  The first time we see her, she yells at her daughter for buying her a house.  The second time we see her, she puts off seeing her ailing daughter to go to Disneyland, and then proceeds to try to get her  to sign her money away.  She even goes out of her way to remind Maggie that she lost her fight!  And along with her mother, Maggie's brother in law is a thuggish ex-convict and her sister a baby toting dimwit, adding to the white trash stereotypes. Even though they only appears in two scenes, these ridiculous characters hurt the film as a whole; although they are supposed to show everything that  Maggie  is striving to avoid becoming, I think it would have been better for her to have had no family at all, or at least not have them all be such monsters.

Morgan Freeman

Despite these reservations, I find much to enjoy in the film: the three central characters of Frankie, Eddie and Maggie are all so likable, and so well played by their respective actors, that I find myself completely on their side and cheering every victory for Maggie, even though I'm not a sports fan.  It's great to see Eastwood and Freeman working together again twelve years after THE UNFORGIVEN, and they immediately have a humorous macho chemistry; thankfully, Freeman is given a much meatier role here, (he won a best supporting actor award for it) and is wonderful in the scene when he recounts for Maggie the fight that lost his sight in one of his eyes, accepting his fate without regret.  But the film's central relationship is between Maggie and Frankie, and while I think perhaps there is a little too obvious symmetry in their lives (he has an estranged daughter that returns his letters unopened, she still misses her father who died when she was a child), they have such a natural and winning chemistry together, the aging tough guy and the feisty tom girl, that it's impossible for me not to be moved by it.  Swank, who won her second best actress award (her first was for 1999's BOYS DON'T CRY) meets the first criteria for the role by making for a believable boxer (she clearly trained hard for the film), but beyond that, she makes Maggie a sweet, good natured but determined character, who eventually gets Frankie to train her through sheer force of will. Swank is also very good after Maggie is paralyzed, accepting her fate the same way that Eddie did, with no regrets; she even underplays the moment when she first asks Frankie to end her life, talking in a forceful but quiet tone, knowing full well what she's asking. At first, Eastwood seems to be playing yet another of his standard tough guy roles, full of crankiness and glaring.  But as he gets closer to Maggie, he shows a genuinely tender side of himself, and he even cries as he admits to his priest (Brian O'Byrne) that he's considering giving in to Maggie's suicidal wishes.

Now, as to the final scenes in which Frankie kills Maggie, they sparked much controversy, with conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Medvid claiming that they were essentially endorsing the idea of euthanasia; oddly enough, these arguments were launched as "liberal Hollywood does it again" despite Eastwood's conservative views. In any event,  however one feels about that issue, I think it's unfair to characterize the film as propaganda, seeing as how Maggie is not even paralyzed until ninety minutes into the film, and even then, she only first asks Frankie to kill her twenty minutes after that.  Maggie's handicap and suffering is really just one part of the whole film.  That said, the film clearly sees Frankie's actions as an act of mercy, and he and Maggie share a tender moment in which he finally tells her what the nickname he gave her means ("Mo Chuisle", gaelic for "my darling, and my blood"), and kisses her on the cheek before giving her a lethal injection.  Personally, I find the scene moving and well acted (even if it's absurdly implausible; there's no way that Frankie could get away with that in a hospital), and I can understand both of the characters motivations, even if I don't necessary agree with them. Therefore, I think it's an ending that is true to the characters and the world they live in, and I have no problem with it.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

Despite my mostly positive feelings about the film, I don't think it was the best of the year, not when better films like THE HOTEL RHWANDA, THE INCREDIBLES and my favorite, THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, were all released.  But, MILLION DOLLAR BABY is  a good pick, mainly thanks to the excellent interplay between the leads.